Testing Times

08.11.17

In the same way that there are multiple lenses with which to view exercise, there are also many uses or purposes of testing.  In classical education tests are mostly exercises in regurgitation, where the student with the best memory is able to perform the best.  Individual sports such as running or weightlifting are also a kind of regurgitation, or mechanical performance of techniques that have been practised over and over, where the rules and the task are well known.  In such cases we may wonder what the purpose of testing or competing is.  Is it to see how well we perform under pressure, or is it primarily a means by which to judge one’s self against others?  The aspects of competition or testing in these cases are very limited, because the participants are aware of what is precisely demanded of them, and have months and sometimes years to prepare for a relatively one-dimensional performance.  Because of this I don’t see competition and testing in their traditional forms to be very beneficial for would-be competitors.

Anticipation gives us time to prepare, and the existence of structured and routinely programmed tests, especially when we are told exactly what we’ll be tested on, remove the opportunity for surprise.  It’s as if most tests have been designed for the purpose of making sure that participants fail as little as possible.

If you suddenly found yourself stranded on a desert island and had to seek shelter, build a fire and find food, that would be a test.  But if you spent months learning and practising how to start a fire, make a shelter and find food on that exact island before being left there alone, it wouldn’t be much of a test would it?  Or, at the very least, it wouldn’t be the same kind of test.

At the heart of this idea is expectation, and that if we make plans and train based on expectations we limit our options for exploration and spontaneous adaptation.  In a sense, training for a known or anticipated scenario biases us and changes the way we view the world.  As long as there is a well-defined goal there will always be a most efficient solution to reach it, which means that most testing has the effect of getting us to focus on efficiency for the sake of reaching that goal.

Professional sports is one relevant realm where the goals are clear, and where efficiency is paramount because it leads to winning more, which ultimately means more financial reward.  But outside of sport the most efficient way often strongly correlates to whatever the majority happen to be doing, as following requires no self-reflection, personal investment or creativity.

Creativity and exploration demand uncertainty which is why it can be emotionally challenging to be an explorer or artist.  Living in constant doubt and darkness takes its toll, and so the explorer must return to the comfort of familiar territory from time to time, just as long as he doesn’t build his home there and then never leave.

So the real tests are not so much the ones we choose ourselves, except when we choose to submit to the challenge of unpredictable outside forces.  It’s too easy to select challenges that don’t do much to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones, and of course we must all start somewhere, but I believe that the direction must be towards more uncertainty and a relinquishment of control.  Training for Ninja Warrior on your backyard replica course is very different from entering the competition with little or no experience of the kinds of obstacles you will encounter.

For me, a meaningful test is an adaptation or improvisational challenge that should help stimulate growth and generate new information and perspectives about one’s self and the world around us.  This is why repetitive activity, including preparation for competitions gets old quickly, because the cognitive complexity is soon reduced to a process of primarily tissue adaptation after a relatively few exposures.  Thinking on your feet becomes mere foot strengthening.

Weightlifting, even bodyweight training is like having a predictable sparring partner who just takes more and more hits to knock down over time.  The anarchic, improvisational-challenge perspective is to change partners once you discover their weaknesses and then defeat them.

The balance needed to be a successful artist is between ultimate freedom and constraint.  Freedom is exciting, wild and scary, and can present a challenge in itself for those who are unorganised or used to having things habitually handed to them on a plate.  Freedom means that you must decide the operating parameters, the goals and the means to get there.  Freedom ultimately puts you in charge of defining the constraints.  We define, explore, refine and narrow down the list of possibilities until we reach a goal, a fork in the road, or a point at which we decide to go in a completely different direction or to just stop all together.  Wherever we go or end up though, there is always a constant movement between freedom and constraint, or else we stagnate.

If we have too much freedom we do nothing; too much constraint and we do the same thing over and over again.

In this case at least, balance isn’t about finding the centre point between the two and then staying there indefinitely, it is about developing an instinct for when to move towards one or the other, and then acting upon it.